Note: the original article published on September 16, 2016 has been recently updated with new information provided by Michelle Dooley and the St. Francis de Sales History Committee.
n 1980, Eugene Ormandy was ready to retire from his long tenure as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. For one of his last recordings with the “Fabulous Philadelphians,” the octogenarian conductor chose a rendition of the Symphony #3 (Organ) by Camille Saint-Saëns, with Michael Murray as organist, to be recorded on the Telarc label.
A great organ symphony needs a great organ! Michael Murray recalled that “the Telarc folks and I visited half a dozen churches in the Philadelphia area to try out organs, before settling on the St. Francis de Sales instrument.”
St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield Avenue had the second largest pipe organ in the Delaware Valley, surpassed only by the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Center City, arguably the largest musical instrument in the world. The Haskell/Schultz instrument was also of the 19th century French type, which made it well suited to the flamboyant French Romantic repertoire of Saint-Saens and his contemporaries.
It took several days for parish organist Bruce Shultz and assistants to prepare the instrument to Ormandy’s specifications, since Ormandy preferred a higher-than-usual “442 pitch to make the sound brighter.” The police closed the surrounding streets during the recording so that the “Fabulous Philadelphians” could work their magic without the distraction of honking cars and squealing trolleys in the background.
This was only one of many times in its long history, that this grand church has had a moment of fame.
St. Francis de Sales parish was established by Archbishop Ryan on May 14, 1890 to serve a community comprised mostly of Irish and German immigrants seeking a foothold in what was then suburban West Philadelphia. The first masses were held in a rented hall above a store at 49th and Woodland. The first building, a combination chapel/school (today’s SFDS school auditorium) was constructed on a portion of the property at 47th and Springfield Avenue in 1891.
The parish’s second pastor, Rev. Michael J. Crane, declared that he would like to build a permanent church where “the soul would be lifted up to exultation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty.” In 1907 Archbishop Edmond Francis Prendergast laid the cornerstone for the new building.
Designed by prominent local architect Henry Dandurand Dagit (1865-1929), the “Byzantine Romanesque,” (also called “Byzantine Revival”) structure took four years to complete. Rafael Guastavino designed and built its imposing domes using his own patented system of interlocking tile and special mortar that did not require internal bracing. (Only 600 Guastavino structures are known to exist, and they are much prized. The Penn Museum and Girard Bank-Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two Philadelphia examples). The four rose windows and six long windows in the church were one of renowned Philadelphia stained glass artisan Nicholas D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions.
St. Francis de Sales was arguably Dagit’s crowning achievement. He lavished uncommon care on its design and construction, in no small part because. he lived at 4527 Pine Street, and this was his family’s parish. He even commissioned statues of his daughters as “angels” to decorate the interior.
Although well-versed in historic styles, Dagit wanted to give a modern twist to his churches. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, French catholic architects were promoting a “Byzantine-Romanesque” style, with domes and rounded arches, to differentiate from angular pointy protestant gothic. This must have seemed to Dagit like the perfect historic inspiration for a church whose patron saint, Francis de Sales, was French. Along with the traditional glass mosaics and marble statuary, Dagit added modern touches such as rows of electric light bulbs along the cornices and archways and the self-supporting Guastavino dome which eliminated the need flor view-obstructing interior support pillars.
The original boundaries of St. Francis de Sales stretched from the Schuylkill River at 42nd Street over to Locust Street, up to 55th street and back to the River with a jog to 58th street from Baltimore Ave. Among the contributors to the new building was James Cooney, who donated the main altar. He lived at 4814 Regent St., owned a fleet of oyster schooners on the Delaware Bay, and also had an oyster-selling business downtown at 116 Spruce Street. Jean-Baptiste Revelli, who lived at 4609 Cedar Avenue, donated funds for one of the long stained glass windows. Known as “Baptiste,” the Assistant Manager and Maitre d’Hotel of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was a celebrated personality, whose address book included many world leaders and international celebrities and whose “ideas as regards table decorations have won him worldwide fame.” The St. Joseph Altar was donated in memory of the deceased wife of James P. “Sunny Jim” McNichol, a prominent Philadelphia politician and also half-owner of the construction firm that built the Market Street subway tunnel, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and Roosevelt Boulevard.(McNichol’s adult children lived on the newly-constructed 4600 and 4700 blocks of Hazel Ave.). Eleanor Donnelly, known as the “Poet Laureate of the Catholic Church” in America donated the Blessed Mother altar to memorialize her deceased family (including her brother Ignatius, a Minnesota senator who taught her to write poetry as a child, and who is remembered today as the author of Atlantis: the Antidiluvian Age – a seminal classic of Lost-City-of-Atlantis lore). General St. Clair Mulholland, an Irish-American Civil War veteran and first Catholic police chief of Philadelphia, who resided at 4202 Chester Avenue, donated one of the dome windows.
Not all of the parishioners were colorful, wealthy or well-known: many were tradespeople, shopkeepers, and office workers. There were also a number of Irish immigrant servants who helped with the cooking and cleaning in the neighborhood’s big houses. Apart from religious affiliation, what did they all have in common? An appreciation of beauty, an attachment to history, and a strong musical sense – qualities that continue in today’s richly diverse parish.
After facing decades of discrimination and violence, by the early 1900s Philadelphia’s burgeoning Roman Catholic population had truly arrived in terms of power and influence. St. Francis de Sales was the brick-and-mortar manifestation of a Gilded Age confidence. The human manifestation of this spirit was Pastor Michael J. Crane (1863-1928), who spearheaded the construction of this magnificent church soon after he took charge of the parish. Crane knew Dagit’s work well: he had assisted at St. Malachy’s Church in NE Philadelphia, during its renovation by Dagit in the distinctive Byzantine revival style. An imposing, dark-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a piercing gaze, Crane insisted that no expense would be spared on his new church. Henry Dagit described the plans: “The design is Romanesque with Byzantine details.The exterior will be of marble with Indiana limestone trimmings…On either side of the main doorway will be two corner towers with large doorways flanked by polished granite columns…These towers will rise to a height of ninety-seven feet and will be surmounted by domes covered with tiles in Byzantine designs. The main feature of the design is a Byzantine dome resting on the four great arches and pendentives of the nave transepts…The dome will be sixty-two feet in diameter…The interior of the church will be imposing. The nave will be vaulted with faience polychrome sculptured terra cotta arches, on which will rest the Gaustavino (sic) vaults.” Dagit further described an elaborate ornamentation and sculpture plan for the interior including a glass mosaic under the rose window, and mosaic emblems of the four evangelists above the main crossing. Many of the interior details changed by the time the church was finished but the Guastavino dome continues to be a distinctive feature of the local skyline.
To be continued…
For a look into the life of the MacMurtrie family and St. Francis de Sales Parish in the 1920s, click here for a PhillyHistory.org article dated June 28, 2010.
Ron Avery, “Their Tradition Is Built to Last Dagits: A Family of Architecture,” The Philadelphia Daily News, October 30, 1995. http://articles.philly.com/1995-10-30/news/25693182_1_philadelphia-architects-catholic-church-sons
1890-2015, St. Francis de Sales Parish, United by the Most Blessed Sacrament, pp.10, 12, 14, collection of St. Francis de Sales Parish, courtesy of Michael Nevadomski.
Henry D. Dagit, Architect, collection of Paul H. Rogers, p.43.
Interview of Michael Nevadomski, Sacristan, St. Francis de Sales Church, September 6, 2016.
Additional Sources provided by Michelle Dooley and the SFDS History Committee:
Boudinhon, Auguste. “Cathedral.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Web. 21 Dec. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03438a.htm>
Catholic Church. Archdiocese of Philadelphia (Pa.), and Philip G. Bochanski. Our Faith-filled Heritage: The Church of Philadelphia Bicentennial As a Diocese 1808-2008 / Prepared By the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ; Father Philip G. Bochanski, General Editor. Strasbourg: Éditions du Signe, 2007. 62—123, 178-181. Print
Dagit, Henry D. The Work of Henry D. Dagit: Architect, 1888-1908. Philadelphia : Henry D. Dagit, 1908. 42-45. Digital Library@Villanova University.41-44
Farnsworth, Jean M., Carmen R Croce, and Joseph F Chorpenning. Stained Glass in Catholic Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2002. Print.
Moss, Roger W. Historic Sacred Places Of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 222-227. Print
Saint Francis de Sales Church. 1890-2015 St. Francis de Sales Parish, United by the Most Blessed Sacrament 125th Anniversary; St. Francis de Sales History Committee. 6-13, 43, 49. Print.
Saint Francis de Sales History Committee. SFDS History Mysteries. Saint Francis de Sales Parish. 2018. Web. https://SFDShistory.wordpress.com
Stemp, Richard. The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Christianity’s Holy Buildings. London, U.K. : New York, NY: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2010. Print.